Rice, Gates trip signals united front

The Secretaries of State and Defense set out for the Middle East to make a case for US initiatives.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrive together in Egypt Tuesday for an unusual joint tour through the Middle East, the statement they make before even opening their mouths will be loud and clear.

The Bush administration's divisions over America's approach to the world are a thing of the past, the duo will be saying, and now a united US foreign-policy team wants results.

In Egypt, Secretaries Rice and Gates will promote President Bush's idea for an international conference later this year to spur moderate Arab states to assist in creation of a Palestinian state living peacefully with Israel. Later, in Saudi Arabia, they will press the regime to play a more cooperative role in Iraq, among other things by holding out the specter of an emboldened Iran if Iraq crumbles.

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But the subtext of the tour will be the new unity of vision in US foreign policy.

"There's no question that State and Defense are singing more from the same song sheet under Rice and Gates than under [Colin] Powell and [Donald] Rumsfeld," says Raymond Tanter, a US foreign policy expert who worked with Rice in the first Bush White House. "They bring together the weight of US force and the promise of its diplomacy, two pillars that previously didn't always stand together."

One of Mr. Bush's objectives in naming Gates to replace Mr. Rumsfeld in November was to mend the divisions that developed between the State Department and the Pentagon, in particular over Iraq policy but also over the Arab-Israeli conflict and other foreign-policy issues. In Iraq, the divisions were seen as one reason for a series of disastrous policy decisions and setbacks in conditions on the ground.

Both Rice and Gates are seen to be focused on getting results now, but with one eye on long-term goals. Since the beginning of this year, Rice has taken on the Arab-Israeli conflict as her best opportunity to leave a lasting accomplishment and to boost Bush's foreign-policy legacy, analysts say. Gates is more focused on righting the Iraq war so that a precipitous withdrawal is avoided and US interests in the region are protected.

But the joint trip is more about making a statement – in particular to Saudi Arabia, a US ally that has become increasingly prickly over the past year.

"With the Saudis, it's a calculation, you're all smiles, but at the same time you're saying the fact the two of us are here together means you can't play one off the other," says Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration now at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "It says there are no differences between State and Defense on this. It doesn't leave the other side any room to maneuver."

The US has become increasingly concerned about Saudi actions it sees as undermining the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Behind-the-scenes frustrations with the Saudis broke out into the open Sunday when the US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, accused the Saudis of working at cross purposes with the US in Iraq.

"Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq," Mr. Khalilzad said on CNN Sunday. If anything, the former US ambassador to Iraq added, "they are doing things … undermining the effort to make progress."

US officials say Saudi Arabia has not stanched the flow across its border into Iraq of Islamist militants who carry out terrorist attacks including suicide bombings. At the same time, they say, the Saudis are funding Sunni insurgent groups and militias that target both Iraqi government forces and US soldiers.

"The Sunni militias are killing Americans and the Saudis are helping to fund them, so that's not good," says Mr. Tanter, who is president of the Iran Policy Committee, a group that advocates US support for the Iranian opposition as a way to tackle the Iranian regime.

Tanter says stabilizing Iraq will require much more cooperation and action from Iraq's neighbors, but that their involvement alone won't be enough – it will take credible US efforts to pressure Iran and address regional concerns about Iran's growing power. And that will take the "coercive diplomacy" of a State-Pentagon initiative.

"The Sunni Arab core is the key to stabilizing Iraq," Tanter says, "but they don't have the threat of military force to pressure Iran. So you need an alignment of the US with Sunni Arab states." Tanter says that for starters, the US should tap into the Iranian opposition force – MEK – held in camps inside Iraq because they have "excellent relations" with both Iraq's Sunni politicians and the US military.

The Bush administration is preparing to ask Congress to authorize the sale of $20 billion in sophisticated arms to Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf states. On Monday Rice announced plans for a new $13 billion military assistance agreement with Egypt to "strengthen Egypt's ability to address shared strategic goals."

The open question is whether the proposed arms sale or anything else the US offers will succeed in altering the approach the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs have adopted toward a Shiite-dominated Iraq. The US wants the Saudis and other Sunni states to support the Iraqi government as a bulwark against Iran. But for the Sunni Arabs, the Maliki regime is proving to be the pawn of an ever-bolder Iran.

"Saudi policy is undergirded by the reality that neither Iran nor Iraq is going anywhere, so they will have them as neighbors for centuries to come," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They are hunkering down for the long haul, finding allies and trying to coopt enemies, but it's a different problem than the US has."

The fact that Rice and Gates are taking the US case to the Middle East together won't be lost on the region's leaders, Mr. Alterman says, but it may not be enough to overcome doubts that have developed about the US.

Alterman says the trip "makes a difference because it clearly ties … a diplomatic solution on the Arab-Israeli front to a broader alliance in regional security. We'll have to see if it's enough," he adds, "to overcome high skepticism in the region over US intentions and the US ability to deliver."

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